Nostalgia – the new black?

By Cuisine7 Minutes
October 17, 2022By Cuisine

Kelli Brett asks, “Is it just me, or do martinis and prawn cocktails seem to be sneaking back onto our menus bringing an unmistakably nostalgic but hip vibe?”

We have never been short of great restaurants with a nod to nostalgia in Aotearoa. Take a glance at our Cuisine Good Food Guide and you will find award-winning offerings across the years such as Wellington’s Boulcott Street Bistro, The Bistro in Taupō, Somerset Cottage in Tauranga, Bistro Gentil in Wānaka and Auckland’s Ponsonby Road Bistro, Cibo, The Engine Room and O’Connell Street Bistro (sadly now closed).

At recently opened Concord in Wellington, Sean Golding and Shepherd Elliott are polishing up their contemporary take on European bistro/ steakhouse-style dishes and the chicken liver paté and shrimp cocktail are a celebration of all that is truly fine in life. Back in the Auckland CBD, Ben and Cara Bayly, Chris Martin and Lucile Fortuna have opened Origine to bring us everything from glorious terrines and tarte Tatin to fricassées and soufflés, and I think Kyle Street at Culprit deserves a mention here for his uncanny ability to give us those hot new ingredients we’ve been dying to try in dishes that take old favourites to the next level. Josh and Helen Emett have taken us firmly down the path toward sentimentality at Onslow with its signature crayfish eclair, playful lamb’s tongue schnitzel and the introduction of a trolley that makes it near impossible not to muse on the great aesthetics of martini lore. Shaken or stirred? Olive or twist? And if it’s an olive, where to put the pip?

Ah yes, the martini; there is no denying that this, perhaps the most elegant of all of our drinking games, has made a comeback. In post-pandemic New York nightlife, there seemed to be a craving for the big M and an escape from the sweet cocktails and the cosmopolitans of the past. And in its A-Z of cultural highlights, British Vogue declared that in 2022 the letter M is most definitely for martini. However, this surge in popularity is seeing a move away from the timeless classic recipe toward a great deal of fashionable flavour-fusion, and I’m not just talking espresso.

Take the oyster-shell martini at Christina’s Shoreditch in East London, made from vodka distilled with discarded oyster shells, dry vermouth, sake and cucumber soda, or the luminous glow of the birch-bark martini coming from a mix of vodka, birch bark, birch water, and Kanpai’s Kumo sake. Over at The Penrose on New York’s upper east side there’s the dirty pickle martini – although I would argue that might be more of a gibson – and in the Gold Room at Lotte New York Palace, the star of their new ‘Art of the Martini’ menu is the $250 reserve martini made from a $700 bottle of Nolet’s Reserve gin and infused with saffron. At Floreria Atlantico in Buenos Aires, your gin martini will be dosed with lemongrass syrup and eucalyptus oil, and at Two Schmucks in Barcelona one of their greatest martini hits features gin, dry vermouth, pear spirit, white balsamic, orange bitters and salt solution. Pull up a stool at Singapore’s Jigger & Pony and watch while they pair Roku gin with handpicked sakura flowers that will spring into bloom while you sip, or zip across the ditch to Chris Lucas’s Society Restaurant in Melbourne for a caviar martini served with a caviar pretzel and smoked cream cheese, which has become quite the opening statement.

The martini manoeuvres continue closer to home in Auckland where at Little Culprit you might find a dirté on the rocks in the shape of a Vlasic pickle ice cube, Rutté celery gin and vermouth. Over at Boxer they use elderflower vermouth, finished with a spritz of fragrant elderflower vinegar. At Alta you can add a clam martini onto your seafood platter and at Bar Magda their summer take includes pisco, fino sherry, absinthe and cranberry. You might love the green tea-ni at O.G.B in Christchurch made from green tea-infused vodka, calvados and elderflower or perhaps prefer the kaweka martini at Teresa in Hawke’s Bay, combining foraged tarata leaf and horopito, vodka, dry vermouth and a garnish of burned yuzu oil.

For those of us old enough to remember the Mad Men-like era of the 50s or the power lunches of the 80s, perhaps all of this excitement for the glammed-up tastes of years gone by can be blamed on our hippocampus, embedded deep in our temporal lobe. Apparently, it plays a key role in long-term memories and has strong links with the parts of our brain related to emotions and smells. But what of the cool kids who are ditching their buddha bowls to flock to these decadent offerings? I guess they will never know if the prawn cocktail tastes just as good as we remember it, but as Stanley Tucci wrote in his recent book Taste, “The martini remains that quintessence of elegance that we all aspire to, and believe we acquire when we drink one.” I think he may be right… What say you? Vodka or gin? ■